Monday, October 31, 2005

Craig Wolfley: Club Kimo

SteelersLIVE Xtra
Sunday, October 30, 2005

It’s not a place, destination or an ultra-chic night club that’s opened. It happens to be the favorite pass rushing technique of a man that Bill Cowher described in his Tuesday press conference as “playing at a Pro Bowl level.

"He is having a heck of a year.”

The man Bill Cowher was referring to was Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. He is having one heck of a year, and the circumstances under which he performed on Sunday are worthy of a closer look.

The club technique is used on pass rushes where you sell a move up-field to your opponent, then club back to the inside swinging your forearm like a Barry Bonds homerun swing. Usually Kimo connects and like McCovey Cove where many of Bonds’ HRs have landed, many Kimo opponents have splashed down on the seat of their pants.

Kimo hurt his shoulder when a Bengal O lineman drilled him in the back of the shoulder while throwing the club in the first series or two of the game. The arm dangled lifelessly by his body as he trotted off the field, his face contorted with pain. Docs gave him the once-over with what I call the circuitry test. This consists of a series of pushes and pulls testing the muscular strength of the arm. Back in, Kimo whacks a few opponents, knocks down a couple of others, then zappo! Out he comes again. Same pit stop action with the Docs, back in, make some plays, and off to see the Docs. This happened again, and again, all through the first half.

Kimo comes out in the second half sporting a new look, a harness on his shoulder and arm to keep it from being able to stretch behind his chest. When his shoulder and arm start searing with pain from another hit, instead of coming out, he gets teammate Joey Porter to pull on his wrist in the huddle in between plays to stretch out the nerves in his shoulder and douse the flambé action going on in his shoulder. Or Aaron Smith. Whoever and whatever it took to clock-out with the rest of the boys at the end of the game.

Kimo finished with a sack and a deflected pass that boomeranged to Aaron Smith. That kicked off the stampede of Steeler scoring three plays later as Willie and his jets cashed in from 37, crushing Cincinnati’s hope of a win.

Just thinking out loud here, but that was one of the greatest tough guy performances I’ve ever witnessed in my life. I’ve been fortunate to play alongside the likes of guys such as Jon Kolb, Joe Green, Mike Webster and Larry Brown, to name just a few. Guys that really put the “tuff” in toughness.

Understandably so, due to free agency and wanting to protect their investment in themselves, many players will take a seat rather than chance further injury to themselves by playing through the pain. Kimo played that game hacking, whacking, and sacking all the while doing a great imitation of a one-armed bandit. Tip of the cap to you Kimo, from the brotherhood of old retired guys.

Old School lives.

Craig is co-host of "In The Locker Room with Tunch and Wolf" which can be heard weekdays from 7-10 a.m. on Fox Sports Radio 970. Wolf is also the sideline reporter for the Steelers Radio Network and played for the Steelers from 1980-89.

Craig Wolfley: Tricks and Treats

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis is dropped for an 8-yard loss in the second quarter by Steelers defenders James Harrison (92) and Joey Porter (12/6/04).

SteelersLIVE Xtra

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Steelers come into the Monday night Halloween clash with the Ravens at just about full strength. The same can't be said of the Ravens. Ray Lewis is out, same for Ed Reed, and Jamal Lewis might as well be too. Anthony Wright, a Steeler send off, is quarterbacking this outfit and despite the addition of a very good Derrick Mason at wide receiver, the results are the same. No offense, good defense, and a bad record at 2-4.

Halloween is based on the theme "trick or treat" which always implies the threat of some sort of nastiness. As the Steelers prepare to take on the Ravens on Halloween night, the nastiness factor should be evident from the coin toss on, based on Joey Porter's decision not to shake the hand of the opposing team's captains after the coin toss, and the Todd Heap episode to which Brian Billick threw back onto the stage in his press conference, seeming to again make something out of nothing.

Over the years Billick has lauded his won-loss record in Pittsburgh, rumors of Ravens players "marking their territory" on the Heinz Field playing surface have circulated, Joey Porter-Ray Lewis have a running feud that escalated at one point to post-game bus area madness and every game between these two clubs has that good o'l down home feeling of a backyard brawl. There is no love lost between these two clubs. Add the national stage of Monday Night Football, and the zaniness of a home crowd who've been trick, or treating themselves to tailgating for hours. Top it off with Myron Cope in the house for a big halftime celebration and Pittsburgh's seemingly favorite guy to boo, Kordell Stewart making a return appearance and I'd say the nutzo factor took quite a jump.

But here's the real challenge to this game. Focus. The only way you can be Super Bowl champs is to beat the chumps. In a long 16-game season, not to throw in the meaningless four game pre-season game schedule that really are meaningful, just not for won-loss purposes, highs and lows are inevitable. Every year teams win games they should have lost, and lose games they should have won. One test for every Super Bowl hopeful lies in the "beating up the stiff" litmus test. Admittedly, it's a less than scientific approach to predicting Super Bowl worthiness, yet it's a truism I subscribe too.

Actually it's an expansion of another theory which I believe in that you can't play in the NFL if you can't lump up the stiffs on a player versus player level. This comes into play most prominently in training camp, when high draft choices lock up with low-enders or campers (player slang for guys in camp that don't have a chance to make the team) and wind up on the losing end of camp battles in one on one drills, and game situations. If you can't whack the low-enders, then the high rent guys are gonna smoke you.

This is where my "rubber meets the road" theory wise. The 2005 Ravens edition is far from the Super Bowl version of 2000, but nonetheless they present a challenge to the Steelers of 2005 simply because they're breathing. Halloween brings out the whackiness in people. Players, believe it or not, are people too. Whacky people doing whacky things on a whacky night. Added up, that's an awful lot of whackiness. That is exactly what the Steelers have to guard against on this Halloween night. To make sure the trick is on the Ravens and the treat is given to the fans.
By the way, and I'm just thinking out loud here, I'm going to go trick or treating as a vegetarian-type skinny guy. The trick is getting into the costume. The treat is a nice 32 ounce porterhouse for dinner. Talk about whacky.

Craig is co-host of "In The Locker Room with Tunch and Wolf" which can be heard weekdays from 7-10 a.m. on Fox Sports Radio 970. Wolf is also the sideline reporter for the Steelers Radio Network and played for the Steelers from 1980-89.

Ron Cook: No Love Lost Between Steelers, Ravens

Players have changed, and Baltimore is in disarray. But here's the bottom line: They are still the Ravens.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It won't be nearly as much fun tonight without Plaxico Burress. He didn't just battle the Baltimore Ravens on the field, he took 'em on off the field. Do you remember how he welcomed ancient Ravens safety Deion Sanders to the rivalry last season? "His day is gone," Burress pronounced, all but suggesting "Past Time" as Sanders' new nickname. Oh, that was priceless.

It also won't be as much fun without Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The guy is supposed to be Superman, but he's not going to play because of a measly thigh injury. That prompts two questions. Are Lewis' days as the NFL's toughest player over? And how is Joey Porter going to entertain himself?

It really won't be as much fun because the Ravens -- how do you say this delicately. -- stink. They aren't just 2-4, they're in disarray. Lewis will be joined on the sideline by All-Pro safety Ed Reed. "That's like Farrior and Polamalu not playing for us," Porter said, sniffing. The Ravens' offense is abysmal and ranks last in the NFL in points per game. Their star running back, Jamal Lewis, looks as if he spent the offseason in prison. Their quarterback, Anthony Wright, couldn't even beat out Kordell here.

But let's be real.

It's still the Steelers and Ravens, on a Monday night, on Halloween no less.

Thank goodness Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister will play. He called Porter a "bleep" last season after Porter shoved down injured Ravens tight end Todd Heap. Or maybe it was after Porter went to the Ravens' team bus after a game in 2003 to challenge Lewis. Porter didn't even dress for that game so maybe there's still hope for him and Lewis tonight. If not, Porter might have to settle for renewing acquaintances with Heap.

And who's going to give Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs a nice Heinz Field welcome? He made no friends here in December when he talked about the Ravens being Kryptonite because they were the only team to beat the Steelers in the regular season. The Steelers got even in the rematch, but Suggs nearly had the last laugh when his late hit left Ben Roethlisberger with bruised ribs and could have knocked Big Ben out of the playoffs. "I'm pretty sure it was a cheap shot," assumed Burress.

The Ravens figure Hines Ward knows all about cheap shots. Keep your eye on him and McAlister tonight. McAlister also called Ward a "bleep" last season just for general principle. "It's funny," Ward said, grinning, "he told me he was glad I was on his side when we were at the Pro Bowl."

Ward, probably more than Burress, Lewis and Porter, is responsible for making the Steelers-Ravens game what it is. In 2001, he popped Ravens safety Rod Woodson and bloodied his nose. Woodson didn't just promise to get even. He put the kibosh on a planned deal for Ward to be a pitchman for one of his Pittsburgh automobile dealerships, thereby violating life's No. 1 rule: Don't let hard feelings ever get in the way of business.

Ward and Woodson later made their peace, but it probably will be awhile before Ward and McAlister kiss and make up.

"Do I recognize that he's a great cornerback? Yes I do," Ward said. "Do I particularly like him? No I don't."

Even the two coaches aren't especially fond of each other. It's safe to assume the Ravens' Brian Billick has moved up to No. 2 on Bill Cowher's spit list, right behind Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe, now that "Davis up there in Cleveland" -- Cowher's derogatory reference to former Browns coach Butch Davis a few years ago -- is out of the league. Part of it is the same reason a lot of people in the NFL dislike Billick and won't shed a tear if he's fired after the season; he's arrogant and condescending and acts as if he invented football. But a bigger part of it was Billick's brag in 2001 that he had never lost a game in Pittsburgh. He was 3-0 here against the Steelers at the time. He's 3-4 here now.

Does that Cowher up there in Pittsburgh know how to carry a grudge or what?

Still, it's Billick who has the power to turn tonight's game from merely entertaining into must-see theater. He could decide Wright isn't his answer, which really wouldn't be much of a reach considering Wright has led zero, one, two, one and one touchdown drives in the past five games. He also could determine Kyle Boller isn't ready to play because of a bum toe. That would leave Kordell Stewart to play quarterback for the Ravens in front of all of his old friends in Pittsburgh.

Who needs Plaxico and Superman when you have Kordell?

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)

Ed Bouchette: Steelers Can Help End Billick Era With Win Tonight

Ravens' coach has lost control of team

Monday, October 31, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's time for Bill Cowher and the Steelers to put Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens into their misery.

Today, I believe the Steelers will deliver the kind of knockout blow that will help end the Billick era in Baltimore. It was a nice run that included a Super Bowl victory, but it's over.

Billick has lost control of his players in Baltimore. He allowed it to happen the old-fashioned way: Too many arrests, too many convictions, too many penalties, not enough accountability.

The new owner, Steve Bisciotti, won't stand for it any more. This was a team that was actually favored to win the AFC North Division, slightly, over the Steelers. Many were calling it a Super Bowl team. Did anyone look at their quarterback or offensive line? Perhaps when Billick won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback it convinced everyone he could do it again with any quarterback. But Dilfer played like Bart Starr compared to these guys.

There's only one or two ways the Ravens can avoid humiliation tonight, if they can run the ball with Chester Taylor or if the Steelers commit a ton of turnovers. Since Tommy Maddox is safely ensconced as the No. 3 quarterback, there should not be an inordinate amount of turnovers by the Steelers. And Billick may be too stubborn to bench Jamal Lewis and go the whole way with the more dangerous Chester Taylor.

The Steelers should be able to run and pass against the Ravens' depleted defense, playing without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and end Anthony Weaver. Tommy Polley, their weakside linebacker, moves to the middle to replace Lewis and he is not a stout middle linebacker.

Baltimore also is without their excellent blocking fullback, Alan Ricard, and his backup, Ovie Mughelli has an ankle injury. The Ravens may have to either use a tight end in their backfield or go with a one-back lineup. They have strong but scatter-armed Anthony Wright at quarterback, who easily will be confused by the Steelers' defense. He's been sacked 14 times in six games and thrown seven interceptions and just five touchdown passes. Those sacks will jump by four or more tonight, and he'll throw at least two interceptions, if they let him throw much.

The best thing the Ravens have going for them is Chester Taylor. He averaged 4.5 yards a carry last season and had 714 yards rushing to 1,006 for Lewis. Taylor has a 6.0-yard average this season but they've given him the ball only 37 times while Lewis has 113 carries and a 2.9-yard average.

That should be a no-brainer and Steelers fans should hope Billick keeps using his backs the same way because he's loyal to his boys to a fault, and it's going to bring him down at the end of the season.

The Baltimore Ravens are a team in need of some good old-fashioned discipline and housecleaning. The Steelers will help motivate the owner to do so but unfortunately they also may help provide the broom for him at the end of the season in the form of assistant head coach Russ Grimm, who will be a candidate in Baltimore.

I'll break my own three-game losing streak on this one: Steelers 27, Ravens 10.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Peter King: The Bus is Still Rolling

Peter King,

CINCINNATI -- Here I am, in the locker room of another stadium, looking at Jerome Bettis, resplendent in his black velvet sweatsuit, wondering: How many more times am I going to be standing here, talking to Bettis after he was the big factor in his team winning? The big factor, really.

I think back. I remember a game in 2001 in Tampa, Bettis going for 143 yards and outrunning the secondary. Literally. People think of Bettis as a big back with stodgy wheels. Wrong. He's a big back with quick feet. He outran John Lynch that day in Tampa, and the towel-wavers who travel the country to support this team were going nuts.

I saw him twice last year, in two Bettis instant classics. Steelers 27, Eagles 3: "Pennsylvania Super Bowl.'' The Eagles put seven, eight men on the line. No help. Bettis: 33-for-149. A ridiculously dominant game. "If I come back next year,'' he told me after that game, "there's no way I can come back in this role. It'll kill me.''

Then the Ben Roethlisberger-Eli Manning showdown on a Saturday in New Jersey. Great, great football game. Back and forth, forth and back. He lugs it 36 times -- 36 times, at the age of 32! -- for 140 grinding yards, and carries the Steelers to another survival-of-the-fittest win, 33-30. Then the playoffs. The Jets outplayed Pittsburgh, Bettis fumbled once -- a key fumble. But he stuck his nose in there 27 times for 101 bruising, clock-eating yards. Duce Staley spelled him in the second half, and the Steelers survived.

Sunday in Cincinnati, Bettis had the role he should have at this point of his life -- relief pitcher. You'll open your paper and see the numbers: 13 carries, 56 yards. You won't be impressed. Well, Bettis was the key to the game. With the Bengals concentrating on stopping him on Pittsburgh's first scoring drive in the red zone, tight end Heath Miller roamed free in the back of the end zone for an easy touchdown catch.

With the Bengals last-gasping in the third quarter, needing a stop at the Cincinnati 25, down 17-6, Pittsburgh had a third-and-3. Bettis is usually the third-and-1 type, maybe third-and-2. But here he came, trying to get three behind the Steeler mules, especially right guard Kendall Simmons. Cincinnati rookie linebacker Odell Thurman grabbed him and tried to hold him. It looked like the play would be whistled dead because the scrum was almost at a complete halt. But there was Bettis churning and churning. The side judge looked like he was going to raise his arm and blow his whistle, but he didn't. Bettis, two seconds later, burrowed for the last two yards of an incredible four-yard gain and the drive was sustained. Four plays later, Roethlisberger threw to Hines Ward for the insurance touchdown.
"One of the best runs of my life,'' Bettis said later.

Score one for brute force over Cincinnati finesse. The Bengals do not have the defensive spine to stop Bettis, and so they can't beat the Steelers right now. Steelers 27, Bengals 13. And it wasn't that close. A week after Bill Cowher forgot to call Bettis' number (four carries, four yards in the loss to Jacksonville) down the stretch, the Steelers

"If we wanted to control this division again,'' Bettis said later, "this was a game we had to have. We're not a pretty offense, but when we're running the ball, I think we can beat anyone.''
The numbers support him. Pittsburgh is 19-3 since opening day 2004 in the regular season.
"I thought you were retired,'' I said to Bettis after the crowd around his locker thinned out.
"They tried to put me out to pasture,'' he said, then laughed. "I'm not quite ready.''
Then someone said he was amazed that Bettis still had the ability to make people 10 years younger and much faster miss. He answered the question politely, then turned to me and quietly said: "I never get enough credit for that.''

Well, in a few years, I'll give him his credit, if I'm still sitting in the Hall of Fame selection meetings at the Super Bowl. Bettis is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Among the players I've covered in 22 seasons, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Brett Favre and Anthony Munoz should get to the Hall before Bettis. That's it. Seven players. Then Bettis. How many running backs are beating stacked defenses at 32 and 33 years old? Sunday in Philadelphia, the Eagles said: We're going to stop LaDainian Tomlinson. He got seven yards. A year ago, I'm sure the Eagles said: We're going to stop Bettis. And he got 149. (I give massive props to the Smith-Faneca-Hartings-led offensive line. He can't do it without those five guys. But the San Diego line is pretty good too.)

Enjoy him while you can, folks. This rodeo won't be in town much longer.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Joe Bendel: No-name D-line a Huge Success

Kimo von Oelhoffen and Brett Keisel greet fans as they leave Heinz Field after the Steelers won their home opener, beating the Tennessee Titans, 34-7.

Joe Bendel


Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Steelers defensive line lacks a catchy nickname, such as the Steel Curtain, but all six members sport a snappy individual moniker.

Casey Hampton is "Big Snack" or "Hampburger."

Kimo von Oelhoffen is "Scooby."

Aaron Smith is "Slim."

Travis Kirschke is "Chubs."

Brett Keisel is "Chubs Jr," or "Diesel."

Put them all together, and you come up with a universal description: Successful.

"It's six guys from six different backgrounds, different places around the world," Keisel said. "And the best thing is, we all have a great time together."

Hampton, a 2003 Pro Bowler who is back to form after missing the final 10 games last season due to ACL surgery, considers himself the oddity of the bunch. He's the only one who isn't married, the only one who tips the scales at over 300 pounds (hence the nickname "Big Snack) and the only one with fashion sense, or so he claims.

"They all act like old men," the big nose guard said, laughing. "You would think Kimo's the old guy of the group (which he is, at 34), but Aaron acts like the old one. He always tries to be perfect about everything. Kimo's real laid-back. He thinks he's hip and stuff like that, but he's not at all. He thinks he can dress, but he's old school. I'm the young guy."

Hampton is also the anchor of a three-man front that sets the tone for a defense that ranks eighth overall in the NFL, including sixth against the run at 90 yards allowed per game. Smith and von Oelhoffen flank Hampton as the starting defensive ends, while Keisel and Kirschke backup the ends, and Hoke backs up Hampton.

On Monday night at Heinz Field, all six of those players could be needed against a Baltimore Ravens team that likes to pound though the ball, even though the Ravens' offense has struggled (11.5 points per game) and former 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis (2.9 rushing average) is shell of himself.

"I think the key for us is having everybody fresh against these power teams -- and making sure there isn't a dropoff," Hoke said. "You want to be solid on every snap, no matter who's out there."

The term "solid" aptly describes how the Steelers have played against the run the past two seasons. No running back has eclipsed 100 rushing yards against them in 18 games; and only one team (Houston, 113 yards) has eclipsed 100 rushing yards this season.

Last Sunday at Cincinnati, tailback Rudi Johnson appeared to be on his way to ending the 100-yard, run-stopping streak when he popped loose for 46 yards in the first quarter. But the Steelers made adjustments, in addition to being more aware of the draw play, and he finished with 65 yards, albeit on just 12 attempts.

Ironically, Johnson was the last running back to rush for 100 against the Steelers in October 2004.

"Cincinnati hit us with some big plays early," said Smith, who leads the defensive line with 19 tackles, to go with a sack and an interception. "But we settled down and started making plays."

The big three of Smith, Hampton and von Oelhoffen often fly under the radar because the Steelers defense features its four linebackers. That means they must put aside their egos and understand their work might go unnoticed, at least by the casual observer.

"You might not see what they do, but they're the ones battling up there, taking on double teams, so we can make plays," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Our front has been dominant since the day I came here. That's the way it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers."

"We're blue-collar," said Kirschke, 31, a former star at UCLA who had his first sack of the season last Sunday in Cincinnati.

Smith, who led the team in sacks and went to his first Pro Bowl in '04, von Oelhoffen, who had a sack and tipped a pass that led to an interception by Smith last week, and Hampton have been setting the tone of late.

"In the last three weeks, those three have been pretty impressive," coach Bill Cowher said. "They've played at a very high level, as well as the people coming in behind them."

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

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Dawson, Greenwood on Hall of Fame Ballot

BGI News: Ex-Steelers Dawson, Greenwood on Hall of Fame ballot

Friday, October 28, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dermontti Dawson gets his first chance at election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and L.C. Greenwood gets his last as a whopping 112 candidates grace this year's modern-era ballot for induction in Canton, Ohio.

Greeenwood, one of 15 finalists for the Hall, will be among the modern-era nominees for the final time. If the former Steel Curtain defensive end is not elected when the selectors meet in Detroit on Feb. 4 he would then have to be included among the senior nominees, a much more difficult path to selection.

Dawson, who succeeded Hall of Famer Mike Webster as the Steelers' starting center in his second season with them in 1989, retired after the 2000 season because of a lingering hamstring injury. During his career, he was favorably compared to both Webster and former Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson, a contemporary who also is in the Hall of Fame.

This year's nominees are headed by three others eligible for the first time: the late Reggie White, who played defensive end for several teams and won a Super Bowl with Green Bay, and quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, along with two former stars from the Buffalo Bills' four-time Super Bowl teams, halfback Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed.

Players must be retired at least five years before they can become eligible.

Other candidates returning to the ballot from last year:

Steelers assistant coach Russ Grimm, a former Pitt and Washington Redskins guard who was a finalist last year.

Donnie Shell, the Steelers' strong safety during their Super Bowl years and a previous finalist.

Tackle Jim Covert, Grimm's teammate at Pitt.

Former Pitt linebacker Chris Doleman.

Former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene.

Former WVU linebacker Darryl Talley.

Chuck Knox, longtime NFL coach and a native of Sewickley.

Former 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo, Jr., from Boardman, Ohio, whose family also owned the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The preliminary list announced yesterday will be pared to 25 candidates by next month. Those will then be reduced to a list of 13 finalists who will join the two seniors candidates, former Raiders head coach John Madden and former Cowboys tackle Rayfield Wright, to be considered for election on Feb. 4, when between three and six will be chosen for induction.

Ed Bouchette: The Growth of a Secondary

The rebuilt defensive backfield is beginning to stir comparisons to the terrific quartet of the 1990s that featured Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related Stories:
Ed Bouchette's NFL Notebook: Trouble ahead?
Injury Report: 10/30/05

The Steelers' secondary had the look of a barn on fire, only those weren't horses back there, they were hens, seemingly running around with their heads cut off. The joke was that old horse Mel Blount, despite his age, still could line up wearing his 10-gallon cowboy hat and start at cornerback for these modern-day Steelers.
They weren't all bad in the secondary, but collectively it was all bad.

So the Steelers did something about it. They flooded their secondary with draft picks. High ones and middle ones. Cornerbacks and safeties. They built one of the best young secondaries in the league with depth to boot.

The current Steelers hope history repeats itself after rebuilding their secondary the past few years because the one they remade in the late 1980s that featured Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake eventually helped get them to their only Super Bowl in the past 25 years.

"Those two were pretty special, now," said Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, who inherited Woodson and Lake when he became their secondary coach on Bill Cowher's first staff in 1992.
His current secondary might not have a Woodson at cornerback, but LeBeau acknowledges it as the best young group since the Steelers rebuilt their porous secondary in the late '80s and early '90s through the draft.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu made the Pro Bowl last year, his first season as a starter. Free safety Chris Hope, also in his second season as a starter, is making the kind of big plays expected of his position. Cornerback Ike Taylor, in his third season and first as a starter, is playing like a Pro Bowler. Veteran Deshea Townsend remains the other starting cornerback, but two others, Ricardo Colclough and rookie Bryant McFadden, the team's second-round picks in each of the past two years, are making their moves.

"Right now, I do see a comparison to when I was playing with Rod Woodson, Carnell and those guys," said cornerback Willie Williams, who is in his second tour with the Steelers after joining them as a rookie in 1993. "It's starting to develop as a good secondary.
"We had some Pro Bowlers back then. Right now, we have some Pro Bowl potential in these young guys."

Woodson is headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lake was the best safety in the league for a number of years and played a good cornerback in 1995 when Woodson missed virtually all of the season with a knee injury.

The Steelers had another good free safety join them in '92 as a rookie, and he now serves as the new breed's secondary coach.
"When I first came here?" Darren Perry wonders. "We were pretty good. That was probably the best group we had right there. We had two Hall of Famers out there."

Woodson and Lake were the constants with several cornerbacks passing through such as Delton Hall, Deon Figures and D.J. Johnson. Perry brought the whole group together.
"They loved Darren Perry," said Tom Modrak, Buffalo's assistant general manager and longtime Steelers personnel man. "He just ran the show, and all they had to do was play. He was one of those guys who could take charge."

Perry believes his current group has that kind of potential.
"Maybe from a talent standpoint, yes," Perry said. "The mental part of it, I wouldn't go with it just yet because of their youth. Rod was in a class of his own, but, as a whole, group, yes, the potential is there."

The Steelers' secondary in the mid-1980s was so bad that one starting cornerback is still known by his nickname.
"Harvey 'Toast' Clayton," Modrak said without prompting.

Coach Chuck Noll once told Modrak to "get him out of here," and they did in short order. They also showed the same kind of determination to correct their secondary problem the way the Steelers did starting in 2002. In 1987, they drafted Woodson in the first round, Hall in the second and safety Thomas Everett in the fourth. All became starters. They picked up Lake in the second round in '89 to solidify matters, and Perry (8th round) joined them in '92, Figures (1st) and Williams (6th) in '93.

"The secondary got fixed to a high degree in a rather short period of time," Modrak said.
There was luck involved in the Steelers getting Woodson because two teams drafting ahead of them made grievous mistakes, allowing them to steal him with the 10th pick.

Cowher and Kevin Colbert, the team's director of football operations, made their own luck in 2003 when they traded their third-round pick to move 11 spots higher in the first round and draft Polamalu with the 16th pick. They made what appears to be another great choice in the fourth round when they drafted Taylor, who had size, speed and raw talent but played cornerback only one season at Louisiana-Lafayette.

They forced the issue again in 2004 when they traded their fourth pick to move higher in the second round to draft Colclough from Division II Tusculum and added Florida State's McFadden in the second round this year.

"God forbid any of us gets hurt or has serious injuries, but we have an opportunity to be one of the best secondaries in that we're all still young, all still learning," Hope said.
"The athletic ability is there and all of us tackle, all of us are aggressive, all of us are willing to learn. There's no guy in our secondary who has the big head or thinks he's bigger than the group. If we keep that same attitude and continue to work hard and keep up the level of competitiveness, we'll be tough."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mario Leads Pens To First Win

Six power-play goals lead to Penguins' win

Seven consecutive goals overcome Atlanta's early 4-0 lead, net 7-5 victory

Friday, October 28, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related coverage
Penguins Notebook: Another goalie takes practice shot in knee
Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

Banks will be open for business today. Same with liquor stores, courts and government offices. Mail will be delivered, just like always. Mass transit will operate on the normal schedule. Garbage collection will proceed as planned.

Apparently, there hasn't been a holiday declared just because the Penguins won a hockey game last night. Perhaps that means the people in charge of such things are hoping it will become more than a once-a-year event.

But even if it does -- and no one should be taking anything for granted at this point -- it's unlikely the Penguins will do it in a more spectacular, improbable fashion than they did last night, when they spotted Atlanta a 4-0 lead before running off seven unanswered goals in a 7-5 victory at Mellon Arena.

"It was scary early in the game," said Mario Lemieux, who put on a pretty frightening show himself, piling up two goals and three assists.

"Mario led the way for us," winger Ryan Malone said. "It was awesome."

The victory was the first of the season for the Penguins (1-4-5), whose power play had one of the most productive nights in franchise history. It scored six times to tie a team record set in an 8-3 victory against Toronto Dec. 12, 1986.

"We've been working on it every day," said defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who scored two of the Penguins' man-advantage goals and assisted on another. "Finally, it paid off."

The Penguins not only got a victory, but some new-look lines. Lemieux played with Sidney Crosby and Mark Recchi, Rico Fata was between Malone and Ziggy Palffy, Lasse Pirjeta centered John LeClair and Konstantin Koltsov and Maxime Talbot was with Matt Murley and Ryan VandenBussche.

Lemieux endorsed having Crosby for a linemate -- "He's fun to play with. With the speed that he has, for me, that's something I need now" -- and liked the looks of the remaining three units, too.

"I thought the other lines were pretty good, as well," Lemieux said. "We'll see what happens."

Critical as this victory was, the Penguins sustained a significant loss: Defenseman Dick Tarnstrom injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee when his skate stuck in the ice after he was hit from the side during the first period.

Although there was no formal report on the severity of his injury, preliminary indications are that he could be out 6-8 weeks.

The game attracted a crowd of 14,009, 14,008 of whom did not wear a paper bag over their head while sitting behind the Atlanta penalty box. Midway through the opening period, though, most of those fans probably wished they had brought one because the Penguins opened the game with some of their poorest work of the season.

Peter Diana, Post-GazetteThe Penguins' Sidney Crosby watches his shot miss as the puck gets behind the Thrashers' goalie last night at Mellon Arena.

They allowed Atlanta, which has lost six of its past seven games, to get not only the first 10 shots of the game, but also the first four goals.

Ilya Kovalchuk put Atlanta up, 1-0, at 3:18 of the opening period, and that triggered a deluge of offense from the Thrashers.

Before it stopped, Patrik Stefan (8:32), Peter Bondra (9:00) and Niclas Havelid (9:50) deposited pucks behind Penguins goalie Sebastien Caron.

"Out of that whole stretch of games, that was probably the worst of the worst," Malone said. "Four-nothing was probably the bottom of the barrel."

Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk used his timeout at that point -- perhaps to consider what it would be like to hold a less stressful job, like air-traffic controller in a war zone -- and it actually served the intended purpose of allowing his team to regroup.

"We reacted to the timeout pretty well," LeClair said. In large part, it seems, because of an inspirational message from LeClair.

He would say only that "everybody just realized that we had to play a lot better, play a lot smarter," but LeClair's teammates credited him with helping them focus on the task at hand.
"He showed a lot of leadership," Lemieux said.

Lemieux did a little leading, too, pointing his team down the path that led to its first victory by converting a Ric Jackman rebound at 10:03, then getting another power-play goal 21.8 seconds before the first intermission.

Gonchar pulled the Penguins within one when he knuckled a shot past Thrashers goalie Steve Shields from inside the right circle at 11:56 and tied the score by taking a cross-ice feed from Crosby and throwing the puck inside the left post at 14:50.

Thirty-one seconds later, LeClair backhanded a Palffy leftover into the net at 15:21 for what proved to be the winner. Jackman (16:06) and LeClair (14:10 of the third) added some insurance before Atlanta's Slava Kozlov closed out the scoring at 15:43.

While winning one game doesn't wipe out all the frustrations and failures of the past three weeks, it provides a bit of a respite from the pressure that had been building by the day.

"It feels good," Malone said. "We can breathe a little bit."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Joe Bendel: There's A Lot To Like About Ike

Ike Taylor swats away a Steve McNair pass intended for Titans receiver Drew Bennett in the season opener.

Joe Bendel


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Before there was the lockdown of Chad Johnson and the knockdown of a sure touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars, there was the tire, the rabbit and Deion Sanders for Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.

"He's done a lot and been through a lot to get where he is today," said Taylor's uncle, Herman Francois, who raised Ike on the outskirts of New Orleans since the seventh grade. "It's been a long road."
And a road less traveled.

Francois assisted in developing Taylor into the speedster (clocked at 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash) he is today with, arguably, the most unconventional workout program in modern history.
To build power in Taylor's thighs, hips and hamstrings, Francois sat in a truck tire each night and had a pre-teenage Taylor pull him with a rope wrapped around his waist for 2-3 miles. Francois wouldn't let Taylor quit until he was on the verge of passing out.

"Then, I would give him some water and tell him, 'Son, it's the fourth quarter now, so you have to keep on going,'" Francois said. "It'd be 2 in the morning and we'd be out there doing this."
But the training didn't end there.

To give Taylor an understanding of the dimensions of a regulation football field, Francois would line the ground near his home with baking flour at 5-yard increments.
"I didn't know how else to make the stripes. I didn't know where to buy the stuff they use on real football fields," Francois said. "But it worked. I had him stride those lines. I'd say, 'Son, if you can stretch along those lines, you're going to be faster.'"

Before long, Francois' nephew was the fastest kid in Harvey, La. But there was still one more challenge.

The rabbit.

To find out how swift Taylor was, Francois oversaw Taylor-and-the-hare races. He would have Taylor line up in a three-point stance on one side and have the rabbit in the cage on the other.
"I won't tell you if he ever caught that rabbit," Francois said, slyly. "You can be the judge."
Taylor claims the rabbit always got away, but just by a hare, er, hair.
"Almost got him a few times," Taylor said.

Hanging Chad

There was no "almost" about it when it came to covering the talented Johnson in a 27-13 win over the Bengals last Sunday in Cincinnati. The star wideout finished with four receptions for 94 yards, a total that included a meaningless 47-yard catch in the waning moments.
Coach Bill Cowher raved about his third-year cornerback moments after the game, as did Johnson, who said, "Ike Taylor is very good. I came into the game thinking it would be very easy, to tell you the truth. And he made me go into my bag of tricks, which is a good thing for the opponent. Therefore, he's in a class of his own."

And to think, when the Steelers used a fourth-round draft pick on Taylor, they had no idea what they were getting from the former Louisiana-Lafayette star.

Today, he's seen himself go from project to potential performer to possible Pro Bowler.
"I don't want to think about anything other than our next game against Baltimore," said Taylor, who interacts with his fans on his Web site, "That's where my focus has to be. I haven't done anything yet."

Humility, thy name is Ike Taylor.

"That's the way he was - and he always will be," Francois said.

Eye opener

Once Taylor proved he could survive Francois' unconventional workout methods, he was free to train in the conventional world.

That's where renowned speed and agility trainer Tom Shaw entered the picture. Francois read an article about the New Orleans-based Shaw, who's trained 76 first-round NFL draft picks, and soon introduced him to Taylor.

"He was a sophomore in high school when he came here, and we timed Ike in the 40," said Shaw, who counts Eli and Peyton Manning among the countless NFL stars who swear by his methods. "He ran a 4.38. Jaws dropped. I just said, 'This kid is going to be blazing fast.'"

The next thing Taylor knew, he was training with and around some of the top players in the NFL, including Ravens cornerback Deion Sanders, who will be on the opposite sideline against the Steelers on Monday night at Heinz Field.

It was Sanders who gave Taylor a window into pro football, of how his work ethic and attention to detail separated him from so many others.

"He'd start off some of the drills I was in, and I'd just watch, see what he was doing," Taylor said. "I was just trying to learn what I could from him."

But it's not like Taylor needed many lessons in the areas of work and sacrifice. He left his mother, Cora, who was raising three children on her own in Raleigh, N.C., and moved to Louisiana with his aunt and uncle.

It was a difficult decision for a seventh-grader, but one that had a two-pronged effect: It would ease the financial burden for Cora, a licensed cosmetologist; and it would reunite Taylor with an abundance of family members in his birthplace of New Orleans.

Cora, though, remained -- and still remains -- a guiding influence in her son's life. "Ike's a very quiet, determined and optimistic kid," Cora Taylor said. "And he knew what he wanted to do at the age of 5, which is, play football."

Heavy hitter, playmaker

Taylor, 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, is playing well on a Super Bowl contender. He emerged from training camp as the clear-cut starter at left cornerback, and is making the Steelers scouting department look like geniuses every time he sets foot on the field.
He hits, evidenced by his 44 tackles in six games.

He makes big plays, evidenced by his touchdown-saving deflection of a 32-yard pass to Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith in an eventual overtime loss at Heinz Field.

The play displayed Taylor's closing speed and field presence.

But he still has a lot to learn, evidenced by the unnecessary roughness penalty in Sunday's game for body-slamming Johnson.
Taylor, however, has made great strides, considering he played only one season of defensive back in college.

"Ike has had to work to get to this point," Cowher said Tuesday. "There are still times that I feel like he relaxes. In this business, you can't relax on any one play."
Taylor realizes that.
"You keep working, keep trying to get better," he said. "I want to be the best football player I can be."

Life and football

Francois always kept the football dream alive for Taylor, while also teaching Taylor about life outside of the game.

The two worked overnight shifts for Francois' maintenance business. That meant being at a job site at 10 p.m. and working until 5 a.m. Taylor did everything from janitorial services to painting, to carpentry, until he eventually became a foreman, who oversaw up to 15 workers.
"And he never complained. He just did his work, went to school, played his sports," Francois said. "It wasn't always easy, but he wouldn't let you know it."

In between cleaning restaurant bathrooms and going to class, there was football. Taylor loved football.

"He went to the library one time, picked up a Sports Illustrated and said, 'Mom, you just might see me on the cover of this magazine one day,'" Cora Taylor said. "I told him, 'Son, I know you can do it.'"

At Abramson High, Taylor played nearly every position. He had 18 sacks as a senior defensive end and ran roughshod as a halfback in the Wing-T offense. He also played kicker and receiver.
But he rarely played defensive back.

He played football at tiny Division I-A Louisiana-Lafayette University, but only for two seasons. He sat out his first two years to focus on academics before joining the team and playing tailback as a junior. He ran for 323 yards on 70 carries.

Then, in his only year as a cornerback, he paired with Charles Tillman, an eventual second-round pick by the Bears in 2002, and scouts began to take notice.

Most Louisiana-Lafayette opponents threw away from Tillman and toward Taylor, who was typically up for the task.

"I think that was the best thing for his NFL future," Shaw said. "People saw what this kid could do."

Next came a number of eye-opening workouts for NFL scouts at Louisiana-Lafayette, and the rest is history. Well, almost.

"People haven't come close to seeing what he can do," Francois said. "They've got one of the hardest working kids around there in Pittsburgh. Ike doesn't take vacations. He stays up there and works and he comes here and works with Tom Shaw. He doesn't need a vacation; he has too much work to do.

"The Pittsburgh Steelers got a special young man there. Ike comes home to this day and tells me, 'You need a break. I'm going out and working for you today.' And he does. It's all just beginning for him. There's a lot more Ike's going to do, believe it."

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

Karen Price: Lemieux Speaks Out Over "Bad Call"

Karen Price
Thursday, October 27, 2005

Mario Lemieux was back to his typical reserved self Wednesday morning, addressing reporters calmly and matter-of-factly about the penalty that pushed him over the edge the night before.

"It was just a bad call," he said of the interference penalty that put the Florida Panthers on the power play with 18 seconds left in a tie game. "The guy was skating backwards, and I was coming back in the zone, we collided, we both went down, I get the penalty. Especially with 18 seconds, the puck was going out of the zone, why would I knock somebody down? The puck's going the other way. It's just. ... frustrating."

That statement applies to a lot more than just the penalty.

The overtime loss brought the Penguins' record to nine games with no wins and the fewest points (five) in the Eastern Conference. They play again tonight against the also-struggling Atlanta Thrashers, losers of five of six games.

Throughout the slump -- even with rumors of organizational meetings and canceled team photos swirling through the media yesterday -- many of the players have talked about it still being early in the season, needing to stay positive, etc.

Lemieux's reaction told a different story Tuesday night.

He came out of the penalty box after the Panthers' game-winning goal, made a beeline for referee Stephane Auger and gave him an earful. If it weren't for the linesmen intercepting him like an opponent picking off a Penguins' outlet pass, Auger probably would have ended up on the business end of Lemieux's frustration.

"It's frustrating for everyone, but when you see Mario, the captain of the team and the best player in the NHL, losing it like that, it makes you want to go out there and just win because you know he wants to win," rookie center Maxime Talbot said. "He's (ticked) off, I guess. He's frustrated the way things are going right now."

One team staff member said he'd never seen Lemieux, who finished with just over 21 minutes of ice time, six shots, four missed shots and no points, so upset after a game. Declining to speak to reporters, Lemieux sat at his stall in the Penguins' private dressing area for at least 15 minutes after the game ended and after some teammates had already showered, dressed and gone home.
Yesterday, the man who for years has lobbied for a crackdown on interference and obstruction still had issue with the particular call that ultimately cost them the game.
"As soon as somebody falls down, it's a penalty," Lemieux said. "They've been told to call everything, and that's what they're doing, which is pretty good. But you have to pay a little more attention to your work, I guess."

Officiating is probably the least of Lemieux's worries right now, though.

"I don't know," he said when asked what needs to be done to correct occasionally trigger-happy officiating. "I've got enough problems."

Sidney Crosby, whom Lemieux yesterday said has been the team's best player "by far" this season, said that Lemieux's reaction after Tuesday's loss didn't necessarily send a message, but that it wasn't fun to watch, either.

"For me, you never like to see a teammate that emotional, that fired up," Crosby said. "And especially Mario. He doesn't do that unless there's something really wrong there. I really felt for him there because I know what it's like to be in situations like that where he wants to win so bad. To be put in a situation like that, it's not fun. It's just unfortunate that that's the way it was."

Karen Price can be reached at

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Joe Starkey: Time To Put The Puck On Crosby's Stick

Joe Starkey
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mario Lemieux jumped out of the penalty box and made a beeline for referee Stephane Auger after the final horn Tuesday. He had to be restrained by the two linesmen.

But who was there to answer questions when reporters entered the Penguins' dressing room?
Lemieux's 18-year-old teammate, Sidney Crosby, that's who.

Lemieux never explained what happened on his interference penalty with 18.1 seconds left in regulation, the one that led to the Florida Panthers' winning goal in overtime. He obviously felt it was a case of incidental contact. It was hard to tell from the replays.

This we know for sure: The 4-3 loss extended the Penguins' season-opening winless streak to nine games (0-4-5). That puts them in the position of trying to become just the third team since 1990 to make the playoffs after opening with a winless streak of at least nine games.

We also know this: Crosby is by far the team's best player.

That's why it was so curious to see him sitting on the bench, watching a power play after a television timeout midway through the second period.

Crosby had just drawn a penalty for the fourth time in the game (the total would swell to six), making an incredible play to the split the Panthers' defense. The break should have given him ample time to freshen up. The Penguins trailed, 2-1.

Yet, when the puck dropped, Crosby was nailed to the bench. He would remain there for 1 minute, 15 seconds.

That would be fine if the Penguins had better options. They didn't. John LeClair was on the ice for those 75 seconds.

John LeClair played 19 minutes, 53 seconds last night.

John LeClair had 10 minutes of power-play time.

Crosby played less than John LeClair, logging 19:45 overall and 7:28 on the power play.

Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk finally has begun to pit Crosby with Lemieux, just not enough. Olczyk also has gradually increased Crosby's playing time, just not enough.

Lemieux and Crosby did play some on an extended and futile 5-on-3 in the first period. They should be together on every power play and at even-strength.

What's there to lose, nine more games?

In so many ways, Crosby put his stamp on this team last night. He crashed the net; he screened the goaltender; he made highlight-reel moves; and he maniacally killed a penalty.

It's way past time that he, not Lemieux, became the focal point of the power play. To use a basketball analogy, Lemieux has the ball most of the time but isn't doing a whole lot with it. He went pointless again last night, for the sixth time in nine games.

That doesn't mean the 40-year-old Lemieux won't find a groove. In fact, a world-class assist man might help him get into one.

Hello, Sidney.

Olczyk's take on why Lemieux and Crosby don't skate together at even strength -- to create balance -- makes sense, but this is desperation time.

"I don't think a lot of us not winning games has anything to do with our forward combinations," Olczyk said.

For sure, the Penguins had many other problems last night. Tops among them was goaltender Jocelyn Thibault.

Maybe Crosby can play goal, too.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Bob Smizik: Penguins Losses Are Just As Bad As Empty Seats

Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you're going to call them the fumbling, stumbling, bumbling and possibly crumbling Penguins, in the name of fairness you must also call them this: The perfect Penguins.
Nine starts, nine losses.

In the real world this translates into 0-9. In the sometimes absurd world of the National Hockey League, the Penguins are 0-4-5, which makes it sound like they have five ties. They don't. They have nine losses in nine starts.

No. 9 came at Mellon Arena last night when they fell to the Florida Panthers, 4-3, in overtime.

The Panthers scored 53 seconds into overtime on a power-play goal by Stephen Weiss. The man advantage was created by an interference call against Mario Lemieux late in regulation play. In a rare outburst, Lemieux argued with referee Dan O'Halloran over the penalty. After the game-winner, Lemieux went after O'Halloran but the linesmen intervened.

The frustration of the owner-player, who was held without a point in 21 minutes of ice time, was understandable. No one expected such a start. Not in Lemieux's darkest nightmare could he have expected 0-9.

A crowd of 14,636 watched the game, and who would have expected, even on a Tuesday might in October, that this heralded team would play in front of more than 2,000 empty seats? But an 0-8 start will do that even to a fan base that is among the most dedicated in sports.

The empty seats, and there might be as many or more tomorrow when Atlanta visits Mellon Arena, are every bit as difficult to take as the losses. The Penguins hierarchy, Lemieux and general manager Craig Patrick, is squarely behind coach Eddie Olczyk and should be. Losses don't make them flinch or lose their faith in Olczyk. But empty seats can.

If Olczyk is fired in the near future -- and this is not to say he should -- it might have more to do with the size of the crowds than the number of his wins. There's a financial bonanza out there to be reaped in this town by anything approaching a respectable hockey team. The Penguins don't want to miss out on these riches.
Olczyk got another vote of confidence last night.

"We're professionals and we know how to play the game properly," said forward Mark Recchi. "We're just not doing it properly. It think Edzo is taking unfair criticism right now. The players have to take a lot of the responsibility. You can't look at him. That's easy to do."
The Penguins came back from a 2-1 deficit to go ahead in the third period. But lost the lead and then the game.

Little things continue to do in this team.
Astonishingly, with all the Penguins' offensive fire power they had a two-minute five-on-three advantage in the first period and could not score.

On the Panthers' second score, goalie Jocelyn Thibault, lost control of a rebound. As the puck sat in front of the goal, Florida's Martin Gelinas burst down the middle, past defenseman Ric Jackman, and drove the puck home.
In discussing some of the team's shortcomings before the game, Recchi said, "We have to be more willing to beat people in puck races."

This was an example of the Penguins not doing that.

Many questions surround the Penguins but none greater than these:
How is it that this supposedly lethal offensive machine is being outscored, 42-26? Better yet, how are Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Ziggy Palffy, Recchi and company being outscored a ridiculous, 30-15, in the first two periods?

In the early going last night the reason was clear. Roberto Luongo, the Panthers goalie, was the best player in the building for the first two period. In the first period alone, he turned aside 16 of 17 shots. The Penguins only goal was by Ryan Malone. By comparison, Thibault could stop only five of the first seven shots against him.
A multitude of reasons have been put forth for the team's malaise.

Not working hard enough.
Too slow coming through the neutral zone
Too concerned about making the perfect play.
Too weak on faceoffs.
Not enough cycling down low.
Too left-handed.
Too old.
Let's add one more to the mix.
Not good enough.

With this start, that reason has to be given serious consideration. The additions of many veteran players with excellent resumes -- Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair, Palffy, Recchi, Thibault -- along with the drafting of Crosby and the return of Lemieux generated enormous enthusiasm and high expectations. It's possible these veterans will hit their stride as the season progresses. And maybe they won't.
It was suggested to Recchi that all the Penguins need to end this disastrous start is a victory.
Not so, he warned.
Even if we win, it doesn't end everything," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ron Cook: Starks Puts on a Show For His Dad

Heath Miller celebrates a 2-yard touchdown reception with right tackle Max Starks and fellow tight end Jerame Tuman.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It takes a pretty big man to wear a Cincinnati Bengals jersey in the Steelers' locker room.
Of course, Max Starks is 6 feet 8, 337 pounds.

What a strange sight Starks, the Steelers' mammoth offensive tackle, made after the 27-13 win Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, heading for the team bus in a Cincinnati No. 79 jersey with the name Browner on the back. Ross Browner wasn't just a Bengals' No. 1 pick out of Notre Dame in 1978. He is Starks' father.

"This is the first time he's seen me play as a pro," Starks said in those delicious moments after the Steelers turned back the Bengals' challenge for supremacy in the AFC North Division with a convincing thumping. "I'm going out to see him right now."

Wouldn't you know Browner was wearing a Steelers No. 78 jersey with the name Starks on the back?

On this wonderful day, that must have made Browner especially proud.

That was some show Starks and his pals on the Steelers' offensive line put on for his old man. Everyone wanted to talk about running backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis after they combined to burn the Bengals' defense for 187 yards on 31 carries. But Bettis knew where the real credit belonged.

"Those guys up-front made it easy for us. They gave us nothing but daylight all day long."

It had been a tough few weeks for the offensive linemen. The Steelers didn't run the ball well in their previous three games, two of them defeats. The worst came in the loss Oct. 16 to Jacksonville. Tackle Marvel Smith was called for a false start and a holding penalty. Guard Kendall Simmons took a holding call. Center Jeff Hartings missed a snap count in overtime.
Starks was beaten for a sack for the third time in two games. The Steelers ran for just 73 yards, an average of 2.4 yards per carry. The Jaguars had nearly a 9-minute edge in possession time.
It doesn't get much worse for the big fellows.

"Nine times out of 10 when things aren't going well for the offense, it's our fault," guard Alan Faneca said.

Bill Cowher certainly didn't hesitate to blame the linemen after the Jacksonville loss. In something of a rare strategic move, he publicly challenged them to play better. It's one thing to do that behind closed doors. It's another to shout it to the world.

"We don't need anyone to tell us we're not playing our best," Faneca said, dismissing the impact of the boss' wrath.

"We're harder on ourselves than the coaches ever could be," Starks added. "We knew we had to come out in this game as one group, one heartbeat, and get the job done."

"We wanted it all on our shoulders," Faneca said.

The results were spectacular.

The Steelers' passing game was efficient if far from prolific. Ben Roethlisberger completed nine of 14 passes for a mere 93 yards. But the linemen "kept the quarterback safe" -- Starks' words -- which was no insignificant feat considering Roethlisberger's tender knee. The only Bengals' sack came when rookie tight end Heath Miller failed to pick up defensive end Duane Clemons on a play-action pass in the second quarter.

But it was the Steelers' ability to run the ball that was most impressive. Parker, Bettis and Verron Haynes combined for 84 yards in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger didn't throw even one pass. The Bengals had no chance to get back in the game. They couldn't get the ball back for their offense.

"We knew we were going to run it and they knew we were going to run it," Cowher said. "I can't give enough credit to the offensive line. Those guys really stepped up."

All of it made for a nice little father-son reunion for Browner and Starks in the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium. Theirs is a relatively new relationship. Starks' mother, Elleanor, didn't tell Starks that Browner is his father until he was 17. That's the same time Browner learned he had a son.

The two since have found they have much in common.

"I wanted to show him I could play some football, too," Starks said, quietly.

Mission accomplished.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Steeler Mystique Deflates Bengals

Steelers safety Chris Hope makes a 55-yard return with safety Mike Logan providing protection after intercepting a pass intended for Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh during the third quarter.

Monday, October 24, 2005

By Paul Daugherty
Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer

You have to admire the Pittsburgh Steelers, even as you loathe them. Their two-ton running back (now two and a half), their Rushmore-jawed head coach, their Cro-Magnon offense, their stupid yellow towels. The whole "Stiller" package is obnoxious, insufferable and overbearing.

And, oh yeah, enviable. Some of the time. Most of the time. In the second half Sunday, all of the time.

The Bengals got Steeler-ed again. In the third quarter, game still very much on, Pittsburgh pulped Cincinnati: Seventeen points, 113 total yards, 70 yards rushing, two interceptions. One franchise's will firmly imposed on the other's.


It's a lot more confounding now than it was in the dim past. Cincinnati has the players to run with Pittsburgh. In fact, you could argue the Bengals have better players in a lot of areas. Would you trade Carson Palmer for Ben Roethlisberger? Chad Johnson for Hines Ward? Rudi Johnson for Jerome (Mix In A Salad) Bettis? The Bengals' secondary for Pittsburgh's?

Nope and nope. Would you trade the Bengals' fragile mindset for the Steelers' bring-it-on attitude? Only if you wanted to win a championship.

Here's what happened Sunday: The Bengals started fast, fueled by a home crowd and a week of buildup worthy of P.T. Barnum. The Steelers accepted the body blows and kept playing. The Bengals blew a few early chances, made a few early mistakes: A dropped TD pass, a blown field goal. The Steelers kept playing.

The Bengals haven't played a game this big in 15 years. The Steelers play several, every year. It's not an accident that Pittsburgh has won its last 10 road games.

Pittsburgh took the lead and then shoved Bettis down Cincinnati's gullet. When Jerome wasn't maneuvering through Cincy's soft middle like a double-wide with a head, "fast" Willie Parker was performing ballet to the outside. Parker's 37-yard pirouette put Pittsburgh ahead 17-6 in the third quarter.

You can't get behind Pittsburgh by 11 in the second half, especially when you're the Bengals and the weakness of your team is stopping the run. In the third quarter, it wasn't about strategy or play-calling or "adjustments." It was about the Steelers being the Steelers.

"To slug it out with them when they get (the lead) is almost impossible," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "They're built for that. In the fourth quarter, you look up at the scoreboard, it's 27-6 and you know what they're going to do."

Bryan Robinson had a different take.

"I think it's here," the defensive tackle said. He pointed to his head. "Once we get that mentality that we're just as good as that team ... we need to get our heads straight. Let's just play."

"That attitude of dominance" guard Bobbie Williams called it.

Pittsburgh has it. Cincinnati wants it. It's an acquired skill.

The Bengals spoke of "missed opportunities" and they had a point. When did the air escape Cincinnati's early season balloon? How about the Bengals' first possession of the game? Chad Johnson made the greatest non-catch in the history of non-catches. No. 85 gets more acrobatic weekly. This time, he laid out in the end zone like an Olympic swimmer leaping from the starting blocks, to catch what seemed to be a 16-yard TD pass from Carson Palmer.

It was as if the city's week-long giddiness had propelled the Bengals down the field, until Palmer's perfect throw turned Johnson into Baryshnikov. Bengals lead 7-0 out of the chute, Steelers have to join the NFL and actually throw the ball, Cincinnati starts making playoff plans.

Except Pittsburgh appealed the catch and the refs reversed the call. Then Chris Henry dropped a ball in the end zone, Shayne Graham hooked a 30-yard field goal and suddenly, Steeler Mystique showed up in Paul Brown Stadium. The good news is, the Bengals still lead the AFC North and they're here again next week, against a Green Bay team that blew a 17-0 lead Sunday against Minnesota, the NFL's most dysfunctional club. The bad news is, they still can't beat the "Stillers."

Marvin Lewis' stated goal of building a Cincinnati team that plays the way Pittsburgh's does is more worthy today than Sunday.


BENGALS• From showdown to beatdownPoor game throws off Palmer passer ratingNot enough rushing for RudiInside the red zoneSteelers have their way on the ground

NFL• Airing it out is a relative term for BenEagles' victory is specialNegative talk pushes MinnesotaInterconference roundupNFC roundup

Ron Cook: Two-Back Attack Wears Out Bengals

Monday, October 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CINCINNATI -- Jerome Bettis was talking a little baseball yesterday in the Steelers' locker room, which only seemed right considering it's World Series time and he's a big fan even if his beloved New York Yankees are home watching.

"Willie definitely is our home-run hitter," Bettis said.

That would be running back Willie Parker.

"You can call me our bunter or our sacrifice-fly guy," Bettis said, all but giggling.

Actually, there was a better word to describe Parker and Bettis on this damp, raw day.


There were a lot of stars in the Steelers' telling 27-13 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, but Parker and Bettis were at the top of the list.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," Bettis said. "We give you different looks when we're in there. You've got to defend outside and you've got to defend inside."

The Bengals did a lousy job defending anything as Parker and Bettis combined for 31 carries and 187 yards. The Steelers got back to the two-back plan that was so successful in their win Oct. 10 at San Diego. They inexplicably had abandoned it in their home loss Oct. 16 to Jacksonville when Bettis wasn't used in the second half or overtime, a mistake that long will haunt Bill Cowher if it ends up costing the Steelers a division championship or home-field advantage in the postseason or even a playoff spot.

Parker hit his home run midway through the third quarter on a 37-yard touchdown run around right end that bumped the Steelers' lead to 17-6. The Bengals were no match for his speed, not to mention the dynamite blocks of fullback Dan Kreider and wide receiver Hines Ward. That play was the biggest part of his 18-carry, 131-yard day.

"It felt good to get in the end zone again," Parker said.

He had scored in each of the first two games when he had a total of 47 carries for 272 yards and looked a little like Walter Payton. He didn't score in the next three games when his numbers weren't much -- 48 carries for 136 yards -- and he looked a lot like Walter Abercrombie.

Give Bettis a little credit for Parker's big day.

You might say his sacrifice put Parker in scoring position.

Bettis gave up his body, the way he always does, wearing down the Bengals' defense with each assault into the line. "That's what I do," he said, shrugging. "They put me in to get the tough yard. I pound. I move the pile."

There's no doubt the game turned when Bettis stepped onto the field for the first play of the second quarter. The Bengals, painfully aware he had lit them up for 11 100-yard and five multi-touchdown games in his career, had to respect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's play-action fake to him on first down at the Bengals' 40. That led to a 20-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller.

The Bengals probably wished Roethlisberger had kept throwing. They clearly wanted no part of the painful experience of tackling Bettis. He had runs of 3, 10 and 5 yards on his first three carries. He finished with 13 carries for 56 yards and helped the Steelers to a sizable edge in possession time, 35:29 to 24:31. They're going to win most games when they have that statistic on their side.

Bettis' most impressive run went for just 4 yards. It was a third-and-3 play from the Bengals' 25 late in the third quarter. The Bengals stopped him initially, then gave up on the play when he landed on a pile of bodies. Bettis, knowing he wasn't down, kept fighting and made the first down.

"My best run," he said.

"It's not often they call a running play on third-and-3. To have that trust in me ... I knew I had to get that first down."

Roethlisberger completed that drive with another play-action fake to Bettis, this time throwing to Ward for a 4-yard touchdown and a 24-6 lead. That's another benefit the Steelers enjoy when they're able to run the ball so effectively. It opens up their play-action passing game. Earlier, Roethlisberger threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Miller after faking a handoff to Bettis.

All of it was enough to make Ward do a funky little end zone dance after his touchdown. He said he was just having a little fun, mimicking Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, who is known for his flamboyant theatrics after his touchdowns.

But Ward also was sending a message to the Bengals and their long-suffering fans. All of Cincinnati had looked at this game as the Bengals' chance to finally take charge of the AFC North Division.

It was a message that Bettis later put into words.

"They want to be champions? They've still got to go through us."

On a day Bettis delivered nothing but hard blows, that might have been the roughest.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)

Bob Smizik: Steelers Send Bengals a Clear Message

Monday, October 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CINCINNATI -- In the parlance of the day, the Steelers smacked the Cincinnati Bengals in the mouth. Then they smacked them in the mouth again. And again and again and again.
As for the Bengals, they smacked no one.

This game, built as an epic struggle for supremacy in the AFC North, turned into a colossal mismatch. The Bengals weren't up for the fight. In fact, they had no fight.

By virtue of five wins compiled against lightweight competition, the Bengals remain in first place in the division. But the Steelers' 27-13 manhandling of them yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium left no doubt as to which was the better team. Cincinnati might be in first place, but the Steelers (4-2) are the team to beat in the AFC North. The young upstarts weren't ready for the defending champs, weren't close to being ready.

The Steelers maintained this was not a message game, but they sent a clear message of superiority to the Bengals.

The victory was vintage Steelers. A relentless rushing attack, led by Willie Parker's 131 yards, and just enough passing by Ben Roethlisberger provided all the offense that was necessary.

But this was a victory of defense. This was no second-rate outfit the Steelers held without a touchdown for the first 58 minutes. This was the No. 1 offense in the AFC, one that averaged 26 points per game. This was the team that had Carson Palmer, the man, some would have you believe, who is the next great NFL quarterback.

After the Steelers got through with him yesterday, Palmer remains the second best quarterback in the AFC North.

This game may well be remembered as the day Ike Taylor came of age as one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. In a move mindful of the way the Steelers used the great Rod Woodson, Taylor lined up wherever Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson was. Johnson caught four passes for 94 yards -- 47 of those yards came on the meaningless late touchdown drive -- and was not a factor in the game.

But the player the Steelers throttled the most was Palmer, who came into the game with a streak of 148 passes thrown over 18 quarters without an interception. That streak lasted 21 more passes and two quarters. Then on three throws early in the second half, Palmer had two passes intercepted.

The first was returned 58 yards by safety Chris Hope and set up a field goal. The second was snagged by defensive end Aaron Smith after Kimo von Oelhoffen tipped the ball and resulted in a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 17-6 lead.

End of game.

Not only were the Steelers ahead by 11 -- Cowher-coached teams are now 95-1-1 when leading by more than 10 points -- but the Cincinnati offense was finished. On the next three possessions, they gained 16 yards and had one first down.

Palmer came in with a streak of nine games in which he had a passer rating of more than 100. His average rating for those nine games was 114.4. He had 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions during that stretch. His rating yesterday was 53.8, with two interceptions and one touchdown pass.

"I just didn't play well enough to win," said Palmer, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 227 yards. "I gave them two turnovers, and in both of those situations they had great field position. When you play a championship team, you can't give them anything.

"It's my responsibility to put points on the board. I flat out didn't play well enough to win."

The Steelers' game plan for Palmer was simple: pressure, pressure, pressure.

"He looks awesome when he has time to set his feet and throw," said linebacker Larry Foote.

James Farrior said, "We knew in order to win this game we had to have a lot of pressure and force him to make bad throws. For the most part, we did that. He's a great quarterback. He's going to have better games. Today was our day."

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former head coach of the Bengals, had some input.
"Coach LeBeau worked his magic and confused them," Foote said.

Confusion helps, but the Steelers won this game with their play, not coaching strategy. They understood the challenge but also refused to allow it to become a dominant theme the week of the game.

"We're just not ready to give it up yet," Farrior said of the Steelers' AFC North dominance.

If they continue to play like this, they'll be dominating a lot more than the AFC North.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bob Smizik: Steelers Need Bettis, Their Magic Bus

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis fends off San Diego Chargers defensive end Igor Olshansky in his regular season debut with the Steelers. "I feel great, I feel fresh," Bettis said after rushing for 54 yards and catching a 16-yard pass in the game.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A lot of unusual things can happen when a football team loses two out of three games. Even a player's name can change.

Take, for example, the Steelers' starting running back. When the Steelers were trampling Tennessee and Houston, teams that today have a combined 2-9 record, their starting running back was Fast Willie Parker.

Fast Willie opened the season by running around and through the Titans for 161 yards on 21 carries. He added 48 yards on a screen pass. A week later, he ran 25 times for 111 yards against the Texans. Everyone, including Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley -- veterans he'd pushed to the background with his performances -- was praising Fast Willie.

But after the competition improved markedly in games against New England, San Diego and Jacksonville, he lost his first name. He's just plain Willie Parker these days, a struggling young guy trying to hang onto his starting job.

As the Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals this afternoon in an AFC North game bordering on crucial -- with a loss putting them two down in the loss column -- Parker remains the Steelers starting running back, but barely.

Who would have thought after he averaged almost 6 yards a carry in the first two games, Parker would be fighting for his starting job four games later? But his 2.8-yard average against the Patriots, Chargers and Jaguars casts doubt on his ability to be an every-down back in the NFL and certainly precludes anyone calling him Fast Willie.

Part of Parker's decline can be attributed to the fact the offensive line hasn't dominated in recent games the way it did earlier. In fact, there have been times when it has been dominated, and that can't be minimized in evaluating a running back.

"If the offensive line is performing poorly, a good running back will be average, at best,'' Bettis said. "You can't run over everybody and make everybody miss, unless you're Barry Sanders."

The running game is vital today because the Steelers, as much as ever, if not more, must control the football. Not only might their passing game be restricted because of injuries to wide receivers, but the best way to stop Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer is to keep him off the field. The Bengals have the No. 1 offense in the AFC and Palmer plays a large role in that success. He has completed 73 percent of his passes, throwing for 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His passer rating is 113.6. Only Ben Roethlisberger has a higher rating. No quarterback has thrown for more touchdowns or has a better touchdown/interception ratio.

The question concerning Parker is this: How long does he get to prove himself against a Cincinnati defense that is ninth in the AFC against the run?

The answer: Not very.

Bettis, stunningly overlooked by Bill Cowher in the team's loss to Jacksonville, is healthy and eager to return, if need be, to full-time duty.

This is just another saga in the amazing Bettis story. He was dismissed -- here and elsewhere -- after the 2003 season as an unnecessary part of the '04 Steelers. But he was kept around anyhow and proved his critics wrong by once again becoming not just the team's feature back, but a successful one.

He was dismissed again this season with the emergence of Parker and yet another injury.
But in a game that could be pivotal, Bettis is certain to get an early call, either to give Parker a breather or take his place.

There's something to be said for what a veteran running back means to an offensive line.

"The longer you play with [running backs], the more you get used to them," said all-Pro guard Alan Faneca. "[Bettis] has been here since I got here. I can look at a defense and have a real good picture of where he's going to hit the hole because I've played with him so long and run the same plays with him."

Because last week he was embarrassed by his failure to use Bettis is situations that called for his running style, Cowher might be more apt than usual to go with Bettis.

Although he has played in only two games and carried only 21 times this season, Bettis is acting like a frisky young colt. Could he handle 25, maybe 30 carries?

"That's not a problem," he said. "That's what I've always been able to do."

Willie Parker, maybe even Fast Willie Parker, might be the future of the Steelers. But for the present -- today against the Bengals -- Bettis, once again, should be the man.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468.)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Ron Cook: Steelers' Conspiracy Theory Just So Much Talk

Steelers linebacker James Farrior watches as Refree Terry McAulay awards the Jaguars a first down after a roughing the passer penalty against Aaron Smith in the fourth quarter.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's the craziest conspiracy theory since Joe Paterno accused the Big Ten Conference of an anti-Penn State bias in 2002.

Some of the Steelers think the officials might be out to get them.

Safety Chris Hope suggested as much after the overtime loss Sunday to the Jacksonville Jaguars and didn't back down from that contention later in the week. "We're known as a pretty physical football team," he said. "Other teams play us and do a lot of talking about how they won't be outphysicaled by us or intimidated by us. I think [the officials] know that and make it a point to look for us doing something."

This was after the Steelers' defense took three personal foul penalties against the Jaguars, including two by safety Troy Polamalu. Hope and Polamalu also had personal fouls in the last-second victory at San Diego a week earlier. In those two games, the Steelers were penalized 18 times for 184 yards, absurdly high numbers that will get them beat in most games.
"I get the sense [the officials] are really watching us," defensive end Aaron Smith said.
Here's what makes this conspiracy theory so strange.

It's not like the Paterno/Big Ten deal. Paterno truly seemed to believe the Big Ten officials wanted Penn State to lose, an opinion still shared by many of his team's fans, especially this week after the tough loss Saturday at Michigan. The Steelers don't think NFL headquarters has it against them. Not at all. They just think the officials get tired of -- get this -- their big mouths.

"We're a group of passionate men who stand up and fight for what we believe in," Smith said, "[The officials] are only human. I'm sure they get offended at times."

"We are pretty chatty out there," defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said. "We're always getting on them about what they call, about what they don't call. I'm sure they probably get irritated with us. I know they call the game the way they see it, but we don't help with all of our crap."

This might be a good week for that to change.

The Steelers need to play smarter.

And they need to SHUT UP!

Not to be rude.

Certainly, the Steelers can't afford to take bad penalties Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals aren't just 5-1 and threatening to run away and hide in the AFC North Division race. They have a sizzling quarterback -- Carson Palmer -- who has had a passer rating of at least 107 in every game and has completed 72.6 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Their offense ranks second in the league in yards and fifth in points.
In other words, the Bengals don't need any help from the Steelers to win.

The calls against the Steelers' defense the past two weeks were legitimate. So much for that flimsy conspiracy angle. The Steelers were able to overcome Hope's facemask penalty and Polamalu's unnecessary roughness penalty in San Diego, but they couldn't overcome their mistakes against the Jaguars.

After being beaten by wide receiver Reggie Williams for a 41-yard gain early in the third quarter, Polamalu was penalized for throwing Williams down out of bounds. That led to a Jacksonville touchdown moments later, a play on which Polamalu was called for roughing the passer when he appeared to leave his feet and take a shot at quarterback Byron Leftwich's head. Smith took a roughing-the-passer penalty late in the fourth quarter when he caught a piece of Leftwich's head on a third-and-16 play, giving Jacksonville a chance to win in regulation.
Only some dubious play-calling by the Jaguars and an end-zone interception by defensive back Bryant McFadden temporarily saved the Steelers.

"I barely touched him, but they're going to call that every time because it was his head," Smith grudgingly acknowledged, before adding an assessment that Jack Lambert made famous around here before Smith was born. "They should put 'em in skirts," Smith said of quarterbacks.

"Either that or put 'em in a 5-foot box and let 'em throw from in there so they can't be touched."
Until that happens, the Steelers need to do a better job walking the fine line between being aggressive and taking dumb penalties. It isn't always easy, to be sure. To his credit, Polamalu had another shot at Leftwich later in the game and didn't shy away from taking it. The difference was this hit was clean, and he wasn't penalized. Polamalu was aggressive, but smart.

That's the only way to play the game.

And it makes the whining so unnecessary.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)